By A. Ivanhoe

A heated debate ripped through the Academic Instructional Center last week during a forum about the future of Western in the shadow of large budgetary setbacks.
Anthropology professor James Loucky moderated a panel of five faculty members and one university staff member during the event entitled “What Is This University For? Critical Questions in Turbulent Times.” Each panelist had the opportunity to give an opening statement and then members of the audience, consisting largely of students and other faculty members, took over the discussion.

“[The universities] are perceived strictly instrumentally,” English professor William Lyne said, taking offense to the priorities state legislature put on math and science degrees over others.

When Lyne talks to legislators, he asks them if they believe in a free-market economy, which they invariably do, he said. He counters that dictating to universities which degrees to push students through is akin to a “Soviet-style planned economy.”

At the same time legislators are trying to control how the universities educate, he said, they are asking the universities to finance public education increasingly like a private institution, noting that next year will be the first time the majority of the university’s budget will be funded through tuition.

“As the university is defined more and more as a private good, more and more [it] will become the playground of the elites,” he said.

“I don’t think the university needs to necessarily be a means to an end,” geology professor Jackie Caplan-Auerback said.

Students should be allowed to get whatever out of their education they want, without being judged for what they choose to do with it, she said.

Seth Vidaña, a university employee in the Office of Sustainability, offered the point of view that perhaps Western and other universities should be used as an instrument to move society toward a greener future.

“What if higher education were to take a leading role … to achieve a green society?” he said.

According to Vidaña, 30 percent of the universities and colleges in the United States have already pledged carbon neutrality.

Vidana believes that every discipline has an opportunity to help transform society.

“We need economists who understand life-cycle analysis,” in order to transform the economy he said.

“University education is supposed to help in conversation, to help in crisis, the true test of democracy,” political science professor Vicki Hsueh said, citing author Danielle Allen.

According to Hsueh, humanities and social science educators need to think about making themselves relevant.

Management professor Matthew Liao-Troth described how his philosophy on education was shaped by the 1992 book “The Good Society,” which made the case that people need to be active participants in the institutions that shape their lives.

Western is a social institution, so all the people with a stake in the university need to be ready to adapt to social changes, he said.
Several members of the audience shared the opinion that many of the people who have a stake in the university are resistant to change.

One member of the audience, who identified as a part-time faculty member, said that the way Western grants faculty tenure should not be shielded from serious scrutiny, suggesting that it might be one reason why changes in educational models are so slow to come.

Another faculty participant in the audience pointed out the lack of engagement between the different academic departments at Western.

“There’s no incentive to know what [professors in other departments] do … and that is not going to change by maintaining the way things are now,” he said.
Matthew Baylor, a senior majoring in communications, suggested that professors need to be more aware of new media tools that are available to them. He asked whether any of the faculty in the room had heard of TED, an organization that hosts and records lectures by innovators across many disciplines and posts free videos on its Web site. Only a handful indicated they had.

Baylor said he enjoyed the open forum, but he wondered whether the discussion would continue.

“I would have liked to see [the participation of] some of the people who can make these changes, such as [Western President] Bruce Shepard or committees,” he said.
While the discussion exhibited the wide range of opinions about what the future of Western might look like, there was consensus that students need to be more involved in the discussion.

Loucky asked for feedback on how to get students more involved in defining what the purpose an education at Western should be and how that should be reflected in its instruction. If you have an opinion on that, please share your ideas with us at as.review@wwu.edu.